"Tocharian donors", 6th-century AD fresco from the Kizil Caves
|Regions with significant populations|
|Tarim Basin in 1st millennium AD
(modern Xinjiang, China)
|Buddhism and Manichaeism|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Other Indo-European peoples, Indo-Iranian peoples|
|Part of a series on|
The Tocharians or Tokharians (// or //) were Indo-European peoples who inhabited the medieval oasis city-states on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang, China) in ancient times. Their Tocharian languages, a branch of the Indo-European family, are known from manuscripts from the 6th to 8th centuries AD. These people were called "Tocharian" by late-19th century scholars who identified them with the Tókharoi described by ancient Greek sources as inhabiting Bactria. Although this identification is now generally considered mistaken, the name has become customary.
Agricultural communities first appeared in the oases of the northern Tarim around 2000 BC, with the earliest Tarim mummies dating from c. 1800 BC. Some scholars have linked them with the Afanasevo culture of eastern Siberia (c. 3500 – 2500 BC). By the 1st century BC, these settlements had developed into city-states, overshadowed by nomadic peoples to the north and Chinese empires to the east. These cities, the largest of which was Kucha, served as waystations along the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. From the 9th century, the people of the oases intermixed with the Uyghurs of the Kingdom of Qocho and shifted to the Old Uyghur language.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, archaeologists recovered from oases in the Tarim Basin a number of manuscripts written in two closely related but previously unknown Indo-European languages. Another text recovered from the same area, a Buddhist work in Old Turkic, included a colophon stating that the text had been translated from Sanskrit via a toxrï language, which Friedrich W. K. Müller guessed was one of the newly discovered languages.
Müller called the languages "Tocharian" (German Tocharisch), linking this toxrï with the ethnonym Tókharoi (Ancient Greek: Τόχαροι, Ptolemy VI, 11, 6, 2nd century AD) applied by Strabo to one of the Scythian tribes that overran the Greco-Bactrian kingdom (present day Afghanistan-Pakistan) in the second half of the 2nd century BC.[a] This term was itself derived from Indo-Iranian (cf. Old Persian tuxāri-, Khotanese ttahvāra, and Sanskrit tukhāra), the source of the term "Tokharistan" usually referring to 1st millennium Bactria, as well as the Takhar province of Afghanistan. The Tókharoi are often identified by modern scholars with the Yuezhi of Chinese historical accounts, who founded the Kushan empire. These people are now known to have spoken Bactrian, an Eastern Iranian language that is quite distinct from the Tocharian languages, and Müller's identification is now a minority position among scholars. Nevertheless, "Tocharian" remains the standard term for the languages of the Tarim Basin manuscripts and for the people who produced them.
The native name of these people was, according to J. P. Mallory, possibly kuśiññe "Kuchean" (Tocharian B), "of the kingdom of Kucha and Agni", and ārśi (Tocharian A); one of the Tocharian A texts has ārśi-käntwā, "In the tongue of Arsi" (ārśi is probably cognate to argenteus, i.e. "shining, brilliant"). According to Douglas Q. Adams, the Tocharians may have called themselves ākñi, meaning "borderers, marchers".
- Tocharian A (Agnean or East Tocharian) was found in the northern oases of Karasahr (ancient Agni, Chinese Yanqi) and Turpan (ancient Turfan and Xočo). It seems to have become a purely literary and liturgical language by the time of the manuscripts. See Tarim Basin for locations.
- Tocharian B (Kuchean or West Tocharian) was found at these sites and also in several sites further west, including Kucha. It appears to have still been in use in daily life at that time.
- Tocharian C (?): Prakrit documents from 3rd-century Krorän on the southeast edge of the Tarim Basin contain loanwords and names that appear to come from another variety of Tocharian, dubbed Tocharian C or Kroränian.
Many of the differences in vocabulary between the A and B concern Buddhist concepts, which may suggest that they were associated with different Buddhist traditions.
Settlement of the Tarim basin
The Taklamakan Desert is roughly oval in shape, about 1,000 km long and 400 km wide, surrounded on three sides by high mountains. The main part of the desert is sandy, surrounded by a belt of gravel desert. The desert is completely barren, but in the late spring the melting snows of the surrounding mountains feed streams, which have been altered by human activity to create oases with mild microclimates and supporting intensive agriculture. On the northern edge of the basin, these oases occur in small valleys before the gravels. On the southern edge, they occur in alluvial fans on the edge of the sand zone. Isolated alluvial fan oases also occur in the gravel deserts of the Turpan Depression to the east of the Taklamakan. From around 2000 BC, these oases supported Bronze Age settled agricultural communities of steadily increasing sophistication.
The necessary irrigation technology was first developed during the 3rd millennium BC in the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) to the west of the Pamir mountains, but it is unclear how it reached the Tarim. The staple crops, wheat and barley, also originated in the west. J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair argue that the Tarim was first settled by Tocharian-speakers from the Afanasevo culture to the north, who occupied the northern and eastern edges of the basin. The Afanasevo culture (c. 3500–2500 BC) displays cultural and genetic connections with the Indo-European-associated cultures of the Central Asian steppe yet predates the specifically Indo-Iranian-associated Andronovo culture (c. 2000–900 BC) enough to account for the isolation of the Tocharian languages from Indo-Iranian linguistic innovations like satemization.
The oldest of the Tarim mummies, bodies preserved by the desert conditions, date from 1800 BC and were found on the eastern edge of the Tarim basin. They seem to be Caucasoid types with light-colored hair. It is unknown whether they are connected with the frescoes painted at Tocharian sites more than two millennia later, which also depict light eyes and hair color.
Later, groups of nomadic pastoralists moved from the steppe into the grasslands to the north and northeast of the Tarim. They were the ancestors of peoples later known to Chinese authors as the Wusun and Yuezhi. At least some of them spoke Iranian languages, but a minority of scholars suggest that the Yuezhi were Tocharian speakers.
During the first millennium BC, a further wave of immigrants, the Saka speaking Iranian languages, arrived from the west and settled along the southern rim of the Tarim. They are believed to be the source of Iranian loanwords in Tocharian languages, particularly related to commerce and warfare.
The first record of the oasis states is found in Chinese histories. The Book of Han lists 36 statelets in the Tarim basin in the last two centuries BC. These oases served as waystations on the trade routes forming part of the Silk Road passing along the northern and southern edges of the Taklamakan desert. The largest were Kucha with 81,000 inhabitants and Agni (Yanqi or Karashar) with 32,000. Chinese histories give no evidence of ethnic changes in these cities between that time and the period of the Tocharian manuscripts from these sites. Situated on the northern edge of the Tarim, these small urban societies were overshadowed by nomadic peoples to the north and Chinese empires to the east. They conceded tributary relations with the larger powers when required, and acted independently when they could.
Xiongnu and Han empire
In 177 BC, the Xiongnu drove the Yuezhi from western Gansu, causing most of them to flee west to the Ili Valley and then to Bactria. The Xiongnu then overcame the Tarim statelets, which became a vital part of their empire. The Chinese Han dynasty determined to weaken their Xiongnu enemies by depriving them of this area. This was achieved in a series of campaigns beginning in 108 BC and culminating in the establishment of the Protectorate of the Western Regions in 60 BC. The Han government used a range of tactics, including plots to assassinate local rulers, direct attacks on a few states (e.g. Kucha in 65 BC) to cow the rest, and the massacre of the population of Luntai (80 km east of Kucha) when they resisted. The Han controlled the Tarim states intermittently until their final withdrawal in 150 AD.
Flourishing of the oasis states
They have a walled city and suburbs. The walls are threefold. Within are Buddhist temples and stupas numbering a thousand. The people are engaged in agriculture and husbandry. The men and women cut their hair and wear it at the neck. The prince's palace is grand and imposing, glittering like an abode of the gods.— Book of Jin, chapter 97
The inhabitants grew red millet, wheat, rice, legumes, hemp, grapes and pomegranates, and reared horses, cattle, sheep and camels. They also extracted a wide range of metals and minerals from the surrounding mountains. Handicrafts included leather goods, fine felts and rugs.
The Kushan Empire expanded into the Tarim during the 2nd century, bringing Buddhism, Kushan art, Sanskrit as a liturgical language and Prakrit as an administrative language (in the southern Tarim states). Prakrit documents from 3rd-century Krorän on the southeast edge of the Tarim Basin contain loanwords and names that appear to come from a variety of Tocharian, which may have been spoken by at least some of the local populace. With these Indic languages came scripts, including the Brahmi script (later adapted to write Tocharian) and the Kharosthi script.
From the 3rd century, Kucha became a centre of Buddhist studies. Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese by Kuchean monks, the most famous of whom was Kumārajīva (344–412/5). Captured by Lü Guang of the Later Liang in an attack on Kucha in 384, Kumārajīva learned Chinese during his years of captivity in Gansu. In 401, he was brought to the Later Qin capital of Chang'an, where he remained as head of a translation bureau until his death in 413.
The Kizil Caves lie 65 km west of Kucha, and contain over 236 Buddhist temples. Their murals date from the 3rd to the 8th century. Many of these murals were removed by Albert von Le Coq and other European archaeologists in the early 20th century, and are now held in European museums, but others remain in their original locations.
An increasingly dry climate in the 4th and 5th centuries led to the abandonment of several of the southern cities, including Niya and Krorän, with a consequent shift of trade from the southern route to the northern one. Confederations of nomadic tribes also began to jostle for supremacy. The northern oasis states were conquered by Rouran in the late 5th century, leaving the local leaders in place. The Rouran were replaced in the mid-6th century by the Turks, who then split into western and eastern khaganates. The Bai family continued to rule Kucha, as vassals of the Western Turks The oldest surviving texts in Tocharian date from this period, and deal with a wide variety of administrative, religious and everyday topics. They also include travel passes, small slips of poplar wood giving the size of the permitted caravans for officials at the next station along the road.
Tang conquest and aftermath
In the 7th century, Emperor Taizong of Tang China, having overcome the Eastern Turks, sent his armies west to attack the Western Turks and the oasis states. The first oasis to fall was Turfan, which was captured in 630 and annexed as part of China.
Next to the west lay the city of Agni, which had been a tributary of the Tang since 632. Alarmed by the nearby Chinese armies, Agni stopped sending Tribute to China and formed an alliance with the Western Turks. They were aided by Kucha, who also stopped sending tribute. The Tang captured Agni in 644, defeating a Western Turk relief force, and made the king resume tribute. When that king was deposed by a relative in 648, the Tang sent an army under the Turk general Ashina She'er to install a compliant member of the local royal family. Ashina She'er continued to capture Kucha, and made it the headquarters of the Tang Protectorate General to Pacify the West. Kuchean forces recaptured the city and killed protector-general, Guo Xiaoke, but it fell again to Ashina She'er, who had 11,000 of the inhabitants executed in reprisal for the killing of Guo. The Tocharian cities never recovered from the Tang conquest.
The Tang lost the Tarim basin to the Tibetan Empire in 670, but regained it in 692, and continued to rule there until it was recaptured by the Tibetans in 792. The ruling Bai family of Kucha are last mentioned in Chinese sources in 787. There is little mention of the region in Chinese sources for the 9th and 10th centuries.
The Uyghur Khaganate took control of the northern Tarim in 803. After their capital in Mongolia was sacked by the Kirghiz in 840, they established a new state, the Kingdom of Qocho with its capital at Gaochang (near Turfan) in 866. Over centuries of contact and intermarriage, the cultures and populations of the pastoralist rulers and their agriculturalist subjects blended together. The Uighurs abandoned their state religion of Manichaeism in favour of Buddhism, and adopted the agricultural lifestyle and many of the customs of the oasis-dwellers. The Tocharian language gradually disappeared as the urban population switched to the Old Uyghur language.
- "Most of the Scythians, beginning from the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae Scythae, and those situated more towards the east Massagetae and Sacae; the rest have the common appellation of Scythians, but each separate tribe has its peculiar name. All, or the greatest part of them, are nomads. The best known tribes are those who deprived the Greeks of Bactriana, the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who came from the country on the other side of the Iaxartes, opposite the Sacae and Sogdiani" (Strabo, 11-8-2)
- Tocharian Online: Series Introduction, Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum, University of Texas as Austin.
- Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 270–297.
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- Winter (1998), p. 154.
- Kim, Ronald (2012). "Introduction to Tocharian" (PDF). p. 30.
- Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 278–279.
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- Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 262, 269.
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- Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 294–296, 317–318.
- Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 181–182.
- Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 318.
- John E. Hill (2009). Through the Jade Gate to Rome. Booksurge Publishing. p. 311. ISBN 1-4392-2134-0.
- Beckwith (2009), pp. 84, 380–383.
- Mallory & Mair (2000), pp. 268, 318.
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- Millward (2007), p. 48.
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- Mallory & Mair (2000), p. 273.
- Beckwith, Christopher I. (2009), Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-15034-5.
- Chen, Kwang-tzuu; Hiebert, Fredrik T. (1995), "The late prehistory of Xinjiang in relation to its neighbors", Journal of World Prehistory, 9 (2): 243–300, JSTOR 25801077.
- Hansen, Valerie (2012), The Silk Road, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-195-15931-8.
- Loewe, Michael (1979), "Introduction", in Hulsewé, Anthony François Paulus, China in Central Asia: The Early Stage: 125 BC – AD 23, Brill, pp. 1–70, ISBN 978-90-04-05884-2.
- Mallory, J.P.; Adams, Douglas Q. (1997), Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 978-1-884964-98-5.
- Mallory, J.P.; Mair, Victor H. (2000), The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West, London: Thames & Hudson, ISBN 978-0-500-05101-6.
- Millward, James A. (2007), Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, Columbia University Press, ISBN 978-0-231-13924-3.
- Walter, Mariko Namba (1998), "Tocharian Buddhism in Kucha: Buddhism of Indo-European Centum Speakers in Chinese Turkestan before the 10th Century C.E." (PDF), Sino-Platonic Papers, 85.
- Wechsler, Howard J. (1979), "T'ai-tsung (reign 624–49) the consolidator", in Twitchett, Denis, Sui and T'ang China, 589–906, Part 1, The Cambridge History of China, 3, Cambridge University Press, pp. 188–241, ISBN 978-0-521-21446-9.
- Winter, Werner (1998), "Tocharian", in Ramat, Giacalone Anna; Ramat, Paolo, The Indo-European languages, London: Routledge, pp. 154–168, ISBN 978-0-415-06449-1.
- Yü, Ying-shih (1986), "Han foreign relations", in Twitchett, Denis; Loewe, Michael, The Ch'in and Han Empires, 221 B.C.–A.D. 220, The Cambridge History of China, 1, Cambridge University Press, pp. 377–462, ISBN 978-0-521-24327-8.
Note: Recent discoveries have rendered obsolete some of René Grousset's classic The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, published in 1939, which, however, still provides a broad background against which to assess more modern detailed studies.
- Baldi, Philip. 1983. An Introduction to the Indo-European Languages. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press.
- Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. 1999. The Mummies of Ürümchi. London. Pan Books.
- Beekes, Robert. 1995. Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction. Philadelphia. John Benjamins.
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- Lane, George S. 1966. "On the Interrelationship of the Tocharian Dialects," in Ancient Indo-European Dialects, eds. Henrik Birnbaum and Jaan Puhvel. Berkeley. University of California Press.
- Mallory, J. P. (2015), "The Problem of Tocharian Origins: An Archaeological Perspective" (PDF), Sino-Platonic Papers (259).
- Walter, Mariko Namba 1998 "Tocharian Buddhism in Kucha: Buddhism of Indo-European Centum Speakers in Chinese Turkestan before the 10th Century C.E." Sino-Platonic Papers 85.
- Xu, Wenkan 1995 "The Discovery of the Xinjiang Mummies and Studies of the Origin of the Tocharians" The Journal of Indo-European Studies, Vol. 23, Number 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 1995, pp. 357–369.
- Xu, Wenkan 1996 "The Tokharians and Buddhism" In: Studies in Central and East Asian Religions 9, pp. 1–17. 
- Tocharian alphabet at omniglot.com
- Tocharian alphabet
- Modern studies are developing a Tocharian dictionary.
- Mark Dickens, 'Everything you always wanted to know about Tocharian'.
- A dictionary of Tocharian B by Douglas Q. Adams (Leiden Studies in Indo-European 10), xxxiv, 830 pp., Rodopi: Amsterdam – Atlanta, 1999. 
- Žhivko Voynikov (Bulgaria). SOME ANCIENT CHINESE NAMES IN EAST TURKESTAN AND CENTRAL ASIA AND THE TOCHARIAN QUESTION